Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol. 1 (VIZ Signature)

ooku-header.jpgThis historical drama may not live up to the promise of it’s "Mature Audiences" warning, but with its pretty art and Jane Austen-y snarkiness, it has its own unique charms.

 

 

216 pgs., B&W; $12.99

(W / A: Fumi Yoshinaga)

 

Dear readers, I have a confession to make. I did not request a review copy of Ooku: The Inner Chambers because I heard the writer/artist was an award-winning shojo manga star. I did not request a review copy of Ooku: The Inner Chambers because I heard that the alternate history was well plotted and reviewed. I certainly didn’t request it because I researched it and found the art was stunning and the design of the book itself was beautiful. No, readers, I requested it because I have a tiny little brain and the book had a big warning on it that it was for mature audiences only, parental advisory box and all. What, said I, could be MA in a shojo manga about ancient Japan? My brain was filled with feverish images and memories of buying CDs with, yes, curse words and lurid tales, dear readers, and in that, I’m afraid, I was disappointed.

Yes, Ooku: The Inner Chambers is a carefully crafted work of art that may be appreciated a little bit more by older readers but, no, it doesn’t really require the warning label if your child/niece/nephew/kid on the street is old enough to be interested in this sort of thing. (I mean, sure, there’s one little scene where there might be a situation with some boy-rape and that’s not cool. Our hero defends himself admirably and nothing happens. It’s all fencing and weird hair and talking about samurai and social classes the rest of the time.) It’s definitely more of a historical drama than a romance and more of a romance than an action book, though there are elements of all three blended into the storyline. I think that the subject of the book probably tends to attract the audience that it so richly deserves and that probably isn’t 14 year olds. And, if they are, they’re probably way ahead of the game. Seriously, kids these days…

The cover to Ooku vol. 1.The story begins with a boy exploring in the mountains, where he finds the perfect fungus for his mother and, sadly, a bear finds him. You really don’t get many maulings in manga, so that was pretty unexpected. At the same time, he manages to contract a disease from the bear that spreads across most of Japan, killing most of the young male population. Women slowly began to slide into the roles previously filled by men until, one day, all of Japan is ruled by a female Shogun who, naturally, gets the pick of the beautiful men. The not-so-beautiful and yet-to-be-discovered simply run around the countryside, spreading…well, you know. Genetic material. DNA. Babies. They’re spreading that stuff around and some of them are doing it for money. (I suppose this is, theoretically, the second point of recommendation for the parental advisory label. Seriously, do the people who decide these things know what gets discussed in health class? No? How about on the school bus?) Our hero, Yunoshin, is spreadin’ his lovin’ around for free to anyone in need of a baby and, at some point, his mama tells him it’s time to start using his potential for good. By "good" I mean "financial gain" and, to that end, they’ve arranged his marriage to a wealthy family’s daughter. Yunoshin is in love with his childhood friend, O-Nobu and, because this is ancient Japan, she isn’t exactly free to make any calls in that arena. In what seems to be almost a fit of pique, he declares his intention to move into the Ooku, or the shogun’s harem. Of course, his parents are a little miffed but they can hardly tell him no. He’s promising to send back all of his earnings to finance a marriage for his sister and that’s a rare thing to be able to do in a society lacking men. On his way out, he stops by O-Nobu’s house, sweeps her off her feet for a smokin’ smooch and then he’s off to Guyville.

He arrives to find the natives are a little restless. He’s on the bottom of the totem pole in a highly regimented social situation and that’s a pretty iffy place to be. They’ve changed his name to a prettier one that flows better, so the main character switches names a quarter of the way through and is now called Mizuno. (Which is a little confusing, but whatever. We’re clever folk, we’ll keep up.) The current Shogun is a little girl so the boys are looking for action that doesn’t involve bookkeeping and sweeping floors and in comes the aforementioned "initiation." That was a little icky. Call that one a teaching moment and move on. What’s most striking about the workings and attitudes of Guyville is that it is so, so Jane Austen. Seriously, the boys are catty, the social interaction is seriously regimented and our hero shakes it all up with a few well-placed snarks, a fencing match and his clothes. The fencing match also ends in snark, by the way. Blah, blah, blah. Shall we take tea? Isn’t my kimono lovely? Tee hee, did you hear what so-and-so said? It starts to teeter on the edge of "a little boring".

But then! Something happens! Our hero meets a patron, who raises him up through the ranks! But it’s a conspiracy?! The old shogun dies! The Queen is dead, long live the Queen! And the new one’s babetastic. Well, she’s kind of responsible and starts tightening the purse strings and makes some accidental eyes at our noble hero, but mostly babetastic. And that’s when the book starts getting interesting. There’s potential death and potential marriages and potential weirdness with a Dutch ambassador and it’s a rollicking read.

Read it if you’re into pretty books about history or history books about pretty things. It tends to shy away from the big picture of what’s happening in a society light on men and focus more on the story of Yunoshin and the Shogun. It’s interesting so far but I can see further volumes may need to spread out into the countryside a bit more. The art is incredibly beautiful, the mature situations aren’t really that mature and the accuracy, as far as I can tell from five minutes with Google and the notes in the back of the book, isn’t too shabby. The book itself is a pleasure to flip through, all thick covers with French flaps and a vellum page in the front. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone, say, in grade school but I can see it being okay for teenagers, especially of the older variety. I, being a smidge prissy, will probably pick up future volumes and enjoy them in an armchair with a cat on my lap. But, in the spirit of the story, you can damn well bet that I’ll make my husband make the tea. | Erin Jameson

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